I was killing time in a coffee shop waiting for my wife and struck up a conversation with a guy lurking above his guitar case. I assumed he might be playing there, and because I used to play in bands, I was curious what the modern music scene was like.
The guy was vaguely familiar and turned out to be the boyfriend of the daughter of a guy I used to work with...six degrees of greasy bacon. He was penciling out a set list with the idea of putting together a 30-minute performance and said he needed to practice in front of people to get over his stage hesitation (didn't seem to rise to the level of "fright.") I went outside with him to escape the din, figuring I'd finish reading my newspaper while listening to him so he wouldn't feel self-conscious.
He played one song and seemed to have it relatively right, singing with what I told him was a "Violent Femmes" flare--an interesting type of voice that would work with the right songs, and talked about developing the right body of work to both connect with an audience and be consistent with a theme or vision or available skill (Personally, I'd rather slash my wrists than drone out James Taylor songs in a coffee shop for loose change). And then he needed a smoke, and he had to get that important text message, and said he was currently homeless and broke, and then he played scraps of a Violent Femmes song , occasionally interrupted with "Wait, maybe it goes like this..." and then it was time for a cigarette and maybe that was his girlfriend texting....
I was going to give him $5 for the private concert, but he only made it through one song, and I figured he'd just buy cigarettes anyway. He kinda reminded me of myself at 20, a little unfocused, ambitious, artistically restless but having no idea how to channel it. At that age, I wanted to be the next Hemingway, which I thought was achieved by drinking and smoking and contemplating the coolness of suicide, but not suicide itself. I often wonder where I'd be if I had stuck with writing back then instead of veering into music for a decade.
That's advice I need to take for myself. I've sold a few books, but for the first time in my life I am working with an experienced professional editor, and all I can think of is the loss of time and growth and how much farther along in my craft I could be.
No, that's not all I think of...I can go back to the basics at any time, like a musician practices scales, over and over, automatically. This summer I am reading books on writing again, and I thought I'd read every such guide ever printed. I'm brushing up on The Elements of Style, and I'm flipping through the thesaurus when I need to find the best word instead of just settling for the vague, lazy word that gets the job done but doesn't aspire or challenge or imbue. I've always seen this as a lifelong dance, a commitment that ends only with death or senility, because you never say it all and you never say it as well as it should be said.
I don't know what's going to happen with the indie movement, digital books, the reader market, or the hunt for the next Stieg Larsson. All I can control is that next sentence. It's not enough to just have something to say. You better say it like you mean it.